• Thomas Coombes

Ten people who made me believe in hope

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

I now talk about hope for a living but it does not come naturally to me: I was always a pessimist by nature. But I know see that hope is a smart strategy informed by psychology, neuroscience and history.


But don't take it from me. Here is a list of great thinkers and politicians who helped me learn how to hope.


1. Barack Obama

Who else? The man who inspired me to become a speechwriter and made me believe that a different kind of politics was possible. When political opponents were cynical about his message, saying that hope was naive, he said: "There has never been anything false about hope."


“Hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

And then, when elected, he paraphrases Sam Cooke's Change is gonna come: "It's been a long time coming. But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America." Dan Pfeiffer, his communications director, writes that when coming up with their "Change you can believe in" slogan, he said "What you do is the message."



2. Zadie Smith

Remember that sinking feeling you felt in mid-November 2016? That is when Zadie Smith, that wonderful teller of stories about class, race and social mobility, gave a talk in Berlin, then published it as a timeless essay called On Optimism and Despair in which she plots a way forward that expresses in lyric terms what we now know from neuroscience - people can change:

"If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting.
At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another.
Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along."

3. Kathryn Sikkink

Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling wrote books providing solid evidence that, actually, the world is getting better - less violent, less cruel, more caring, more compassionate.


In a ground-breaking book Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, Kathryn Sikkink provided a similar analysis to show the instinctively pessimistic human rights movement that it WAS winning. Because activists spend their days documenting the worst abuses, we often miss the longer-term progress we are achieving, quoting Chicago activist Saul Alinksy:


"Alinsky said that you need to have anger, hope, and the belief that you can make a difference. Some see anger as the primordial emotion of justice. But although anger stimulates action, it also burns out quickly and can lead to apathy. Anger is not sufficient
to maintain motivation over time; you also need to have hope and to believe that you can make a difference. In order to know that you can make a difference, you need to have and celebrate small victories that will sustain the work for larger ones."

Sikkink points out a bias that makes people who are negative sound more intelligent and convincing than those who are positive. She points out that civil society has always faced threats from the powers it confronted, and that a frame of crisis and failure harms not only the motivation, but also the well-bring of activists. No wonder we are so prone to stress and burn-out when we feel like we are constantly failing. The way forward, Sikkink urges, is to show people how change happens:


"It is not just knowing that we can make a difference but also knowing more specifically how we have made a difference that gives us the energy to keep working.By focusing exclusively on the gap between our ideals and our practice, organizers and scholars may have tipped the balance toward pessimism and despair. The challenge we face now is to use our research to sustain hope and action without complacency or indifference."

4. Anat Shenker-Osorio

Have you ever had a moment when someone comes along and effortlessly articulates answers to questions you have been struggling to answer for years, and shows you how to express ideas for which you have long lacked the words?

Anat Shenker-Osorio's brilliantly brutal analysis blew my bind. When you tell people they live in a dangerous world, they will seek a strong authoritarian leader who promises the keep them safe. Instead of offering people a seat on the Titanic, she said, human rights groups need give them a sense of:


"We got this".

That's what Angela Merkel said when pushing people to welcome refugees: We are a strong country and we can get this done.



And it's what Jacinda Ardern said in her successful electoral campaign.

You can hear about that campaign and other in Anat's pearls of wisdom in her Brave New Words podcast. Everything she says is a 🤯 moment so just go read her work.


5. Martha Nussbaum

I am learning that how you feel is a political act. In a breathtaking work of moral philosophy, Martha Nussbaum's Monarchy of Fear makes the connection between politics and emotion. how anger and fear can be used to divide people. In one interview, she talks about leaders as "custodians of public emotion and quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she says


"Anger has to be purified and channelized and linked with different emotions, such as hope, faith in the possibility of justice and, above all, love. You don't even have to like these people, but you do have to have a basic goodwill toward their humanity and for their capacity for good action. You have to have the sense that it is always possible for people to listen and to change."
But hope is also not just an emotion; it's a syndrome linked to action."

Nussbaum shows us how we can practice hope. Hope is associated with action, it involves a vision, whereas fear is associated with avoiding danger. Hope is vulnerable, it involves seeing a potential in human beings to be better than they are today, whereas fear is self-protective: "Hope swells outward, fear shrinks back." In other words, we have to practice seeing and believing in the best of other people. Habits of hope, she says, sustain habits of love. We have to use the arts to "offer bridges to seeing human diversity as joyful, funny, ragic delightful."


For her, hope really is a choice and a practical habit. This practical hope, she writes, is essential for achieving progress:

“The beautiful imaginings and fantasies involved in hoping can energize action toward the valuable goal. It’s hard to sustain commitment to a difficult struggle without such energizing thoughts and feelings.”

A similar line of thought comes from Brene Brown who writes so effectively about shame as a form of fear (what does this mean for human rights "naming and shaming"?) and the need to embrace vulnerability to develop. Similarly, Nussbaum says democracy depends on trust, accepting vulnerability, to fellow citizens. Brown says:

“Hope is not an emotion; it's a way of thinking”

6. Amy Simon and Robert Perez

The people behind HeartWired, Amy and Robert showed me how stories can change minds, and change the world. Above all, they showed me how to harness the power of empathy, not just to mobilize supporters, but to reach people who think differently.

That if you understand people's lived experience, not just how they think but how they feel about an issue, you can nurture a more compassionate attitude in your audience. Their work on LGBT+ rights shows how you can change minds by showing audiences people like them changing their minds, overcoming what they call the internal HeartWired conflicts.

And if there was any doubt about the power of the HeartWired approach, I saw it completely change the face of Ireland in the space of a few years with this kind of campaigning:



7. Krizna Gomez & Cesar Rodriguez Garavito

It's one thing to have hope or an idea, it's another to be able to act on it. With their mix of design-thinking pragmatism and sharp intellectual insight, Kriz and Cesar showed me how movements can change.


While human rights movements worried about the existential threat of authoritarian populism, they saw an opportunity for the movement to transform itself so that it could become truly global and re-connect to the people it purports to serve. They called for a new 'playbook' to respond to the populist challenge:

"Activists are contributing to a new playbook that offers hope for a meaningful reinvigoration of the movement...
We posit that the new playbook requires less emphasis on naming and shaming strategies; instead, we must connect with new constituencies, combine online and offline mobilization, and develop horizontal forms of collaboration between global North and global South organizations.
...The new playbook must put narratives, emotions, values, and communications front and center, rather than as afterthoughts in deploying conventional and technical tools of advocacy."

Above all, they dare to pursue new narratives for human rights, and a new way of not only talking about, but also doing human rights:

"More than a set of treaties and constitutional norms, human rights are moral claims about the intrinsic value of every human being."

8. Osama Bhutta

Finally, a shout out to my old boss. On the first day in the office he told the Amnesty International communications programme that although we have a poster on the wall saying that its better to light a candle than curse the darkness, "We spend a lot of time cursing the darkness but not much time lighting candles".

Instead, he drove a strategy based on making the case for human rights and telling stories of change. As he wrote after the Christchurch massacre:

"We can’t keep expressing shock and then moving on until the next outrage....we’ll beat the haters through the force of our love, compassion and shared humanity."


These are just some of the people whose ideas made me believe in hope. Please share your stories and heroes of hope below.